Monday, June 17, 2013

Hugh Aldersey-Williams's "Anatomies"

Hugh Aldersey-Williams's books include Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements, which has been published in ten languages, and The Most Beautiful Molecule, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His new book is Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body.

Aldersey-Williams applied the “Page 99 Test” to Anatomies and reported the following:
On page 99, Sir Francis Galton makes one of his several appearances in Anatomies. Galton was a remarkable figure in Victorian science, a polymath, a ceaseless questioner, and a tireless collector of data and investigator. He once wrote a paper entitled ‘Notes on Ripples in Bathwater’, which gives you a pretty accurate idea of his mental restlessness. On another occasion, he found himself at an especially dull lecture, and thought he might try to derive a quantitative index of boredom by measuring the rate at which members of the audience were fidgeting.

Galton made numerous quantitative investigations of the human face and body, too. He sought to measure the beauty of Britain’s women in the following way: he cut out a cross in cardboard and mounted a pin on a thimble on his thumb. He could then go about the towns and cities of the country covertly measuring the pulchritudinal index: a beauty warranted a pinhole in the top part of the cross, an average-looking woman in the crossbar, and an ugly woman in the stock of the cross. This gave Galton an instant statistical snapshot for each town. (According to his results, Aberdeen women were the ugliest and Londoners the most beautiful.)

A more serious project involved the new technique of photography. He went round national institutions of various sorts – prisons, mental asylums, private schools – and photographed individuals there. Then, he layered the photos so that a composite was obtained which blurred out the differences and reinforced the common features of the people’s appearance. His aim, of course, was to distil the essence of, say, the ‘criminal look’. Although we recognize such a project as futile today, it perhaps has its dubious descendants among those who seek to use MRI scans to a similar end.

As for Galton, his legacy today is not so much the vast volumes of data he collected, or what these data ultimately told – which was frequently nothing – but the accompanying statistical methods that he had to devise in order to do all the necessary number-crunching.
Learn more about the book and author at Hugh Aldersey-Williams's website.

Writers Read: Hugh Aldersey-Williams.

--Marshal Zeringue